Reclaiming Joy

First Sunday of Advent
Read the Sermon

 Habakkuk 3:17-19

There are a lot of ways that we prepare for Christmas – how many of you have your decorations up? How many of you waited till after Thanksgiving to put your decorations up? Anyone just not take their decorations down from last year?

There are all kinds of ways that we prepare for the holidays, we decorate, we wear our favorite ugly sweaters, we listen to music that any other time of the year seems out of place, but ultimately, we prepare for Christmas, more than anything else, here, in our hearts.

In the church calendar, we call the four weeks before Christmas Advent. The season of Advent comes from the Latin word “adventus” meaning coming or arrival. Traditionally, in the church, we have talked about advent in a way like we would talk about preparing our hearts as we would prepare our homes for a guest. We want to be ready for the birth of Jesus that brings us good news of great joy for all people.

But “adventus” can be translated as coming or arrival, but it also means to develop, to arise.

This season arises, Christmas doesn’t just happen, it develops in such a way that we don’t simply feel the joy of this season, we become the joy.

There are a couple of ways that we want to help you prepare for the joy of Christmas, and so I want to tell you about the resources that we have available for you to make the most of Advent.

First – in your bulletin, like always, there is a guide to prayer and study. Every day there is a reading, thought, and prayer that ties back into our message. If you ever forget your bulletin, the guide to prayer and study is on our website and it’s posted on our Facebook page every morning too.

Next, we’ve put together an Advent journal for you. There are copies available for you this morning, and in the journal, you’ll find the reading for Sunday, a prayer, and some questions to help you journal about joy and faith, along with a quote to help inspire you if you’re not sure where to start journaling. This is a journal that you can use for your own devotion time, or you can use it with family and friends or your small group and Sunday school class.

We have three soup and sermon dates planned for Advent. On the 4th, 11th, and 18th we will have these gatherings at the church at 12:10 pm. If you have a lunch break, this is a great opportunity to get together with folks and enjoy some conversation with one another.

Our education committee is putting together several actives and ideas for you to use throughout Advent. We also have daily Advent cards that will help you to not only experience, but share the joy of this season with others, so I hope you will pick those up too.

There are many ways that you can enter into this Advent as we prepare for Christmas, so I hope you will take advantage of them because it’s one thing to prepare with decorations, but what matters most is how we prepare our hearts.

Next to the journals and Advent cards that we have for you this morning, there’s an invitation card to our Christmas Eve services. We’re going to have two services this year, a communion Christmas Eve service at 4 pm and a candlelight Christmas Eve service at 7 pm. You can take one of those cards for yourself if you need a reminder, but what I hope you will do is share an invite card with a friend or neighbor or co-worker and you’ll ask them to join you on Christmas Eve at Grace.

On the front of the card it’s written, “The Greatest gift has already arrived” and I’ve been thinking a lot about that this week. I love the hymn that we started our service with, “Come, Thou long expected Jesus, born to set Thy people free; from our fears and sins release us, let us find our rest in Thee.” We are all longing, waiting for our fears to be released, there is a rest that we all need, and yet, this gift is already ours. At Christmas, we celebrate the gift that has always been ours. In a sense, we are longing for what we already have.

The Gospel of John gives us a very different kind of Christmas story. There are no shepherds or Magi. This is what John writes:

“In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. The Word was with God in the beginning. Everything came into being through the Word, and without the Word, nothing came into being. What came into being through the Word was life, and the life was the light for all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness doesn’t extinguish the light… The Word became flesh and made his home among us.”

The Christmas story, in the Gospel of John, is the beginning of everything. John lifts words directly from the poetry of Genesis, “In the beginning…” What matters for John isn’t simply where and when this all got started, it’s what was there, it’s “the Word”.

In the beginning was the Word, which doesn’t just echo Genesis, it expands our awareness. As the poetry of creation unfolds, God speaks and creates. God’s word brings forth all that is, God speaks creation into existence. In the Hebrew scripture, it’s God’s words that make all that is, but John writes in Greek, John writes, in the beginning, was the logos.

And logos, in Greek, means:

reason

meaning

order

wisdom

intelligence

In the beginning was the wisdom of God, the reason of God, the meaning of God.

John begins with a sacred universe, with a creation filled with meaning, purpose, and wisdom.

The Gospel of John begins in the beginning, giving us a glimpse of the purpose and hope that was born among us, and yet, has always been with us.

Ephesians puts it like this (1:9-10) – “God revealed [God’s] hidden design to us, which is according to his goodwill and the plan that he intended to accomplish through his Son. This is what God planned for the climax of all times: to bring all things together in Christ, the things in heaven along with the things on earth.”

In Hebrews it’s written, (1:2-3) – “God made [God’s] Son the heir of everything and created the world through him. The Son is the light of God’s glory and the imprint of God’s being. He maintains everything with his powerful message.”

Or as Colossians says (1:15-22) – “The Son is the image of the invisible God, the one who is first over all creation, because all things were created by him: both in the heavens and on the earth, the things that are visible and the things that are invisible. Whether they are thrones or powers, or rulers or authorities, all things were created through him and for him. He existed before all things, and all things are held together in him. He is the head of the body, the church, who is the beginning, the one who is firstborn from among the dead so that he might occupy the first place in everything. Because all the fullness of God was pleased to live in him, and he reconciled all things to himself through him – whether things on earth or in the heavens. He brought peace through the blood of his cross. Once you were alienated from God and you were enemies with him in your minds, which was shown by your evil actions. But now he has reconciled you by his physical body through death, to present you before God as a people who are holy, faultless, and without blame.”

We could go on, but I think you get the idea.

When John tells the Christmas story, John begins by showing us a God that is formless, mysterious, and yet, has always been on our side. John begins by showing us a God that is embodied with us, because God’s Word, God’s logos, the hopes and dreams of the invisible God have been made visible in Jesus.

John goes on to write, “The Word became flesh and made his home among us.” and the word that is used for flesh is interesting, in Greek, it’s sarx, and sarx is messy.

Sarx is earthy and gritty, sarx is carnal, sarx is the kind of word that laughs at fart jokes. There’s another word for the body in Greek that John could have used that would have been much more prim and proper, there’s a word for flesh and body in Greek that would hold it’s pinky out when it had afternoon tea and that word is soma.

John is telling us that the divine wisdom of God has become gritty. John is telling us that reason, that purpose, the healing and hope, the thing that holds all things together, it’s in this mess with us.

Things get taken even farther though. John writes, “The Word became flesh and made his home among us” and John goes on to write, “From his fullness we have all received grace upon grace…”

Throughout all of this scripture, the movement of God is the movement of a relationship, a relationship that invites, a relationship that challenges, a relationship that heals and reconciles, a relationship that has always been ours.

I am fascinated by the creation poetry of Genesis and the Christmas story in the Gospel of John because there’s is so much joy and creativity and potential there. In the beginning, we are good, in Genesis, it’s written that we are very good, which is interesting because often when Christians think about what happened, in the beginning, they only think of ‘original sin’, but that simply isn’t there. Too many Christians believe that they are a problem to God. You are not a problem. In Genesis 1 and the Christmas story in the Gospel of John, there is only original goodness, there’s original creativity, there’s an original blessing, original love, but there isn’t sin, there isn’t loss, there isn’t division, there’s only joy. And it’s all for you, it’s for us and everyone else.

The phrase original sin is an odd one if you think about it because who among us has ever sinned in an original way? Poke someone’s eye out with a beaver, that’s original, but telling a white lie, you’re more creative than that.

I’m not saying that there isn’t sin within us, we can’t pretend that we are all perfect, we know ourselves too well for that. But what I am saying is that this Advent we need to rediscover the joy that has always been ours.

Through Advent, we prepare, we discover, we seek to live into the love that called all things into being, so we can recognize and be this love for and with one another. At Christmas, Jesus is born, God among us, fully human and fully divine, to show us what it means to embody and enflesh this joy that has always been with us.

Joy is one of the most consistent themes in the Bible. There are over 400 passages about joy and, generally speaking, these passages fall into a couple of categories. The first is the feeling of joy – there are multiple passages in the bible where a moment of happiness brings about rejoicing. But the other category of joy is more enduring than a feeling, it’s the joy that determined, the joy cannot be stopped.

We see this in our reading this morning.

Habakkuk is a book that you could easily overlook in the Bible. We call Habakkuk a minor prophet not because their ideas are insignificant but because they didn’t write that much. It’s a brief book in the Bible, only three chapters, and was most likely written during the Babylonian exile.

If you want to understand the Hebrew Bible, you have to understand the exile. It is one of those turning-point events that changed everything. We have some trauma in our national history, but we don’t have anything that compares to the exile.

Babylon didn’t just declare war on Israel, they sought to destroy and humiliate Israel. In 597 BC Jerusalem was invaded, the temple was destroyed and Israel’s king was forced to watch their children be executed before they were blinded.

Not only was Israel conquered and humiliated, but they were also kidnapped, forced to relocate to Babylon.

It’s while in exile that Habakkuk writes and begins their book with these words, “LORD, how long will I call for help and you not listen? I cry out to you, ‘Violence!’ but you don’t deliver us. Why do you show me injustice and look at anguish so that devastation and violence are before me? There is strife, and conflict abounds.”

I’ve said this a few weeks in a row now because it matters – God is not afraid of your questions, doubts or frustrations. Habakkuk knows, like we all know, that everything is not as it should be.

Whatever your questions are, don’t be afraid of them, because God isn’t afraid of them.

For the people, for Habakkuk, everything had fallen apart, and they wanted to know why, they needed to know that everything would be OK, they were longing for something, anything, to find joy in.

Even with all the questions, the back and forth conversation that Habakkuk has with God, their book ends with a prayer, as we read earlier, “Though the fig tree doesn’t bloom, and there’s no produce on the vine; though the olive crop withers, and the fields don’t provide food; though the sheep is cut off from the pen, and there is no cattle in the stalls; I will rejoice in the LORD. I will rejoice in the God of my deliverance. The LORD God is my strength.”

Habakkuk has nothing – there’s nothing in bloom, there’s no produce, crops have withered and wasted away. It’s only when Habakkuk has nothing when everything else has been stripped away, that they discover that underneath it all is the strength, the love, the joy, the God that holds everything together.

This enduring love, this goodness that cannot be stopped, this justice, this joy, this grace is with and in all things because God is with and in all things. There may be times where it feels like we are waiting, but there will be other times where we recognize what has been ours all along.

Psalm 30 puts it like this, “Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning.”

I know it can feel like weeping lingers for longer than a night, but joy is coming because joy is already yours.

I want to tell you the story of Mary Johnson because when I think of people that know how to not only find but live with joy, I think of her.

Mary lives in Minneapolis and in 1993 her son, Laramiun, shot during an argument at a party. He was 20 years old, her only child, and he was murdered, by a 16-year-old, named Oshea Israel. When she first heard the news, she didn’t want to believe that it was true, as the police came to take her to the morgue, she fainted.

Her son’s murderer was quickly found and taken into custody, and she wanted the harshest punishment possible because of course she did. An argument at a party turned into a murder and Mary couldn’t understand why or how this happened.

When the trial started, Oshea Isreal was tried as an adult for first-degree murder, but during the trial, the judge changed the charge to second-degree murder.

Mary Johnson said in an interview that in court, she viewed Oshea, her son’s murderer, as an animal that deserved to be caged. But at the end of the trial when she read her victim statement, she said, inspired by her faith, I forgive you, “because the Bible tells us to forgive.”

But Mary Johnson admitted that she hadn’t forgiven Oshea. She hated him, but one day she read this poem about two mothers in heaven, two angles that met one another, and it changed Mary Johnson’s life forever.

Two Mothers

Long time ago, so I have been told,

Two angels once met on streets paved with gold.

“By the stars in your crown,” said the one to the other

“I see that on earth, you too, were a mother.

And by, the blue-tinted halo you wear

“You, too, have known sorrow and deepest despair…”

“Ah yes,” she replied, “I once had a son,

A sweet little lad, full of laughter and fun.”

“But tell of your child.” “Oh, I knew I was blessed

From the moment I first held him close to my breast,

And my heart almost burst with the joy of that day.”

“Ah, yes,” said the other, “I felt the same way.”

The former continued: “The first steps he took-

So eager and breathless; the sweet startled look

Which came over his face – he trusted me so.”

“Ah, yes,” said the other, “How well do I know”

“But soon he had grown to a tall handsome boy,

So stalwart and kind – and it gave me so much joy

To have him just walk down the street by my side”

“Ah yes, “said the other mother,

“I felt the same pride.”

“How often I shielded and spared him from pain

And when he for others was so cruelly slain.

When they crucified him – and they spat in his face

How gladly would I have hung there in his place!”

A moment of silence – “Oh then you are she –

The mother of Christ”; and she fell on one knee.

But the Blessed one raised her up, drawing her near,

And kissed from the cheek of the woman, a tear.

“Tell me the name of the son you love so,

That I may share with your grief and your woe.”

She lifted her eyes, looking straight at the other,

“He was Judas Iscariot: I am his mother.”

 After reading that poem, Mary realized that there was another mother that was hurting. Another mother felt that she had been robbed of a joy she could never have again.

Mary knew that she needed to get to know the mother of the man that killed her son. They met, they cried, and together, they had a vision of starting not one but two support groups, for the victims of murder and for the families of those that commit murder. Mary said in an interview, “I knew that I would never be able to deal with these mothers if I hadn’t really forgiven Oshea. So I put in a request to the department of corrections to meet him.” Mary decided to rediscover joy and meaning and purpose in her life by getting to know Oshea, the murderer of her son.

When they met at the prison for the first time, Mary said to Oshea, “Look, you don’t know me. I don’t know you. Let’s just start with right now,’”

She continued to visit with Oshea while he served out his sentence, and, they became friends, Mary even now calls Oshea her son.

When Oshea was released from prison, he said, “I feel like one of the luckiest men in the world, because I have two mothers.” Mary and Oshea are next-door neighbors too.

Of the forgiveness that Oshea’s been given, the joy that he has found on the other side of the biggest mistake of his life, about how Mary helped him to find a job, home, and encourage him to graduate from college, “I still don’t know how to take it because I haven’t totally forgiven myself yet. It’s something that I’m learning…I won’t say that I have learned yet – because it’s still a process that I’m going through.”

Habakkuk writes “Though the fig tree doesn’t bloom, and there’s no produce on the vine; though the olive crop withers, and the fields don’t provide food; though the sheep is cut off from the pen, and there is no cattle in the stalls; I will rejoice in the LORD. I will rejoice in the God of my deliverance. The LORD God is my strength.”

It is tempting to say to ourselves, “Though the fig tree doesn’t bloom, and there’s no produce on the vine; though the olive crop withers, and the fields don’t provide food; though the sheep is cut off from the pen, and there is no cattle in the stalls;” and I’m just going through the motions.

Despair is a spiritual disease that tells us every day will be just like every other. Despair tells us that nothing will change, that things can’t be better, so why bother?

But the birth of Jesus, the joy that is being born among and within us, says otherwise.

Jesus’ life, his insistence that there is grace and mercy for everyone, his compassion, his message that you can love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you, it’s the birth of a new imagination in our hearts that tells us there is another way, there is a better way, to build our future.

Whatever is oppressing you, whatever is stressing you out, whatever is keeping you up at night because it compresses your chest, whatever is holding you down, whatever makes it hard to breathe, whatever it is, it is not the first or the last word of your life. Joy is. Grace is. Love is with you and love is being born to us at Christmas. So let’s get ready for this joy to be ours.

Joy is where we begin, joy is where all this got started, so let’s start this Advent season with joy.

May you rediscover the joy that has always been with you this Advent. Amen.

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December 2 – 7, 2019

Click on the day to expand the guide.

Monday

Read – Psalm 30:1-5, 11-12

Notice – Donald Williams writes, “In [the psalmist’s] illness there has been weeping, the sense of God’s absence, and mourning. Now…the healing of God has turned sorrow into joy.” * As Christians, we should remember that even Jesus felt God’s absence, quoting from Psalm 22 while on the cross. Have you experienced these moments of absence and loss? What/who kept you going? While weeping may endure for a night, joy comes in the morning. What joy is dawning in your life?

Pray – Lord, when I face hard times where “weeping may stay all night,” I thank you that the worst thing is never the last thing, that in the end you always have and always will turn sorrow into joy. Amen.

*Donald Williams, The Preacher’s Commentary Series, Volume 13: Psalms 1–72. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1986, p. 239

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Tuesday

ReadHabakkuk 3:17-19

Notice – Habakkuk lived in the time just before the Babylonian Empire invaded and destroyed Jerusalem. At the end of his short book, Habakkuk pictured utter disaster in an agricultural land. No figs, no grapes, no olives, no crops, no sheep or cattle—it’s hard to imagine how things could get much worse. Did “I will rejoice in the Lord” mean the prophet would say, “It’s great that we have no food”? What might “rejoice in the Lord” mean when life is difficult? Thích Nhất Hạnh, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk, teacher, author, poet and peace activist, said, “Sometimes your joy is the source of your smile, but sometimes your smile can be the source of your joy.” How does his statement relate to the kind of determined faith commitment the Hebrew prophet wrote down some 2500 years ago?

Pray – God, teach me how to trust in you as deeply as your puzzled but faithful servant Habakkuk. Amen.

Wednesday

ReadJeremiah 31:10-13

Notice – Jeremiah’s prophetic commission was a painfully lonely one. Much of the time, he pled with the citizens of Jerusalem not to throw away their lives by fighting the invading Babylonian troops (see Jeremiah 21:8-9, for example). But in today’s reading, he looked ahead and spoke of hope and joy. The day would come (not right away, but it would come) when Israel’s exile would end. And, like the glow of dawn on the horizon, Jeremiah’s words hinted at the day when God would turn all “mourning into laughter and sadness into joy.” The verse 12 promise that “they will grieve no more” fit well with the words of Isaiah 25:8: “The LORD God will wipe tears from every face.” What events or situations have brought the most grief into your life? How meaningful to you is the promise that God will ultimately heal your grief, that you will grieve no more?

Pray – God, thank you for the prophetic promise that your story (and my story as your child) ends in joy. I eagerly look forward to that wonderful day. Amen.

Thursday

Read Psalm 126:1-6

Notice – The first half of this psalm was a journey in memory. The Israelites never forgot the Exodus from Egypt—their “defining story”—nor their jubilation when God set them free from exile. “Yes, the Lord has done great things for us,” the psalmist affirmed. God lifting them up from captivity was a permanent part of their history. What do you remember as a time when God did “great things” in your life? How do you keep that memory alive?

Pray – God, thank you for the times when you have done great things for your people. Help me to live in the confidence that, sooner or later, you always act to lift us up and bring us joy. Amen

Friday

 Read John 14:1-3

Notice – In John 13:33, Jesus told the disciples, “I’m with you for a little while longer.” Peter almost immediately asked, “Lord, where are you going?” To what was probably a circle of worried faces, Jesus said, “Don’t be troubled…I will return.” Jesus’ talk of going away puzzled his disciples. But he promised that he would return, and that when he did his followers could always be with him. He gave them a vivid picture of God’s house as a spacious place with plenty of room for everyone. Have you faced and dealt with your fear of death and what comes next? Jesus came to “set free those who were held in slavery their entire lives by their fear of death” (Hebrews 2:15). In what ways can your model of finding greater freedom from that pervasive human fear help others you care about overcome their fears?

Pray – Jesus, thank you for your message that “the best is yet to come.” Help me to live in trust, hope and joy as I follow you all the way to your Father’s spacious house. Amen.

Saturday

ReadIsaiah 55:6-13

Notice – How does Isaiah’s description of the gap between God’s mercy and our usual human ways of relating speak to your heart? Sometimes when we read Isaiah’s words, or Jesus’ teaching about loving enemies, we might think, “Sounds nice—but it would never work.” Are you convinced that God’s ways are indeed higher than ours? Do you believe God’s way is the only path to ultimate peace and good, or just hopelessly naïve idealism?

Pray – Lord, did your servants 500 years before Christ read these words and think, “How will that work?” I know the story of Jesus, but it still contains a lot of wonder and mystery. Thank you for this story that includes the promise of your saving work for me. Amen.

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